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Getting Things Done with Your Mac
Pages: 1, 2

Getting Things Done with Quicksilver

If you haven't heard of Quicksilver already, it's about time you discovered it.

This much-praised, free application lets you launch files and documents in an instant, without having to ferret around in the Finder looking for them.

Simply by hitting the key combo of your choice (usually Command+Space), you call up a little input box into which you type the name of whatever it is you want to use. Quicksilver swiftly narrows down your options to a handful of files and, with eerie Google-like accuracy, tends to have the one you want at the top of the list.

But Quicksilver is way more than just a launcher. It has modules for accessing your email contacts, your web browser bookmarks—even names inside your Address Book database. In short, it lets you find and manipulate almost any kind of data you can think of.

Once you start using Quicksilver (or one of its competitors—several are available and Mac DevCenter carried a comparison article on them last year), you'll find it very hard to go back.

This one little anecdote speaks volumes: Over the Christmas holidays, when I had to spend some time using my mother's Windows PC, I was constantly hitting Alt+Space to call up apps and files, and constantly feeling frustrated that doing so didn't result in anything happening. My fingers do Command+Space without my thinking about it; the movement is a central and constant part of my normal working day.

How does this help you get things done? It speeds up lots of minor little processes that get in the way of doing real work.

Say you're writing a document that needs to have images dropped into it. There are plenty of microtasks (open your chosen editor, open the file if it already exists, browse to your pictures folder and find the correct image, drop it into the current document) that can be hugely sped up with a tool like Quicksilver.

The less time you spend on microtasks, the more time you have for the important stuff: writing the words, or answering the emails, or making the calls you have to make.

Merlin Mann says of Quicksilver: "It's one of the two things (the other is HumaneText/Markdown) that I couldn't live without, full stop."

Getting Things Done with Your Memory

It's been quite a while since the publication of my Outboard Brains for Mac OS X article, which took an all-too-brief look at some of the apps available for keeping an electronic record of the thoughts in your head.

Some of those apps have changed a lot since then; there's a great many of them for you to try, some veering towards the outliner way of doing things, others leaning toward wiki technology. Suffice to say, my opinions have changed too. I no longer use StickyBrain but have switched to Notational Velocity as a means of storing information.

Just in the last week, in the course of researching this article, I've been very taken with the abilities of a little application called DEVONnote. It offers excellent editing and writing tools wrapped in a convenient and slick outliner. DEVONnote and DEVONthink users have been talking about using these apps for GTD; it's worth reading their comments to learn about their experiences.

There are many other software recommendations from GTD freaks. Obviously we can't list them all (we'd never finish), but here's a selection.

One of these is Life Balance, a cross-platform application for creating to do lists and outlines.

What distinguishes Life Balance is the built-in system for assigning priorities. Each new task is given a priority using a simple slider; move it one way for something essential, another way for something that can wait.

Life Balance looks at all these competing demands on your time and works out what needs to be done when; it also offers simple pie charts so you can monitor your progress and see what has been completed on time and what has been left to rot in the pile.

Merlin Mann makes extensive use of Entourage (though he uses Mail as well) and has documented some of his uses for it on his 43 Folders site. One of the most interesting ideas is about linking simple text files (funny how they keep cropping up—simplicity matters to organized minds) to tasks, events, or contacts within Entourage. Thanks to Quicksilver, adding to those text files can be incredibly swift and simple. The result? The geek-like appreciation of text files combined with the boss-pleasing calendar functions in one of Microsoft's best-known Mac products.

Witch is a new, little utility that enables rapid keyboard switching between individual windows, not just between apps. Better still, it allows you to access minimized windows without having to mouse over the Dock.

For tasks that recur systematically (or even semi-randomly), there have been many pointers to Sciral Consistency; like Quicksilver, it's an app that takes some getting used to but can be very helpful to the eternally forgetful.

Since the process of getting things done often involves making and maintaining lists, there's a great deal of crossover with the world of outliners, of which there are a dozen or more excellent competing applications to choose from. About This Particular Outliner has this covered in far more detail than we could ever manage here; Ted Goranson's writings on the matter are authoritative and always a good read.

It's useful to mention a handful of recent outliner-related memes, worth considering alongside Fraser Speirs' OmniOutliner experiments:

  • Steven Berlin Johnson's Tool for Thought post did wonderful things for the reputation of DEVONthink, big brother to the more basic DEVONnote tool that I've been using. Both apps are well-suited to any task involving the gathering together of lots of files and the spotting of relationships between them.
  • At the Hog Bay Notebook wiki, people have been talking about ways to use the app for productivity management; one guy has written up his system.
  • Some people just dream of the perfect app.
  • And of course there's always VimOutliner and TVO.

Gee, some people even find iCal useful. Day Chaser is aimed at people wanting more than iCal's basic offering, but in some respects it is more like a slimmed-down Entourage than a beefed-up iCal.

Task Completed

Finally, some more pointers for the curious.

Here are the apps that Merlin Mann lives in: TextMate, TextEdit, OmniOutliner Pro 3, NetNewsWire Pro, Transmit, iTunes, BBEdit, Ecto, Excel, iVolume and Volume Logic, AutoPairs, WordService.service, and xJournal.

And these are the apps your humble correspondent lives in: BBEdit, DEVONnote (as of about two weeks ago), Notational Velocity, Eudora, Firefox, X-Chat (did someone say "productivity"?), QuickImage, MarsEdit, and Graphic Converter.

My system is very simple: New to dos get written into todo.txt in BBEdit or on my paper PDA when I'm not at the computer (from which they will later be transferred to BBEdit). Articles and ideas for articles are stacked in a sensible (to me) hierarchy in DEVONnote. Snippets of stuff that I have to remember get shoved into Notational Velocity. It works, mostly.

Everyone's requirements are different. I've written before about mine, which boil down to something pretty simple. As a writer, my to do list is mainly a list of things to write or ideas for things to write. I wanted a simple GTD system that allowed me to write swiftly in the same environment I use to manage my list of ideas. At the moment, DEVONnote performs that task very well.

It's important to remember that getting things done (no caps) isn't so much a "state of mind" as an "application of self." It doesn't matter how many PDAs (electronic or otherwise) you own or the number of incredibly cool applications you install in your Applications folder. Your efforts to be more productive will fail unless you want them to work. In addition, there's no rule that says you must read everything there is to read about gtd (or GTD) and apply it all; take what helps you, and use that. The rest is a someday/maybe.

Ultimately, many of the steps you can take boil down to a willingness on your part to make something happen. Self-imposed systems of goal-and-reward will only work if you have the determination not to break the rules and reward yourself anyway, even when you haven't reached the goal.

Giles Turnbull is a freelance writer and editor. He has been writing on and about the Internet since 1997. He has a web site at

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